Wayne Smith, Jr. is a drummer, composer, and educator with a multifaceted palette of soundscapes and genres at his disposal. Having toured across three continents, performed throughout the New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. music scenes, and currently working as a staple member of the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, Smith’s accolades rightly herald his abilities as a master craftsman of the drum set. Described as an “inventive drummer who displays an in-depth musical consciousness,” and who is “willing to embrace the moment, yet never [loses] himself nor the tradition in the search,” by acclaimed saxophonist Tim Warfield, Smith is a musician whose ability to engage with both deep technique and emphatic emotion is unrivaled. It is this depth of humanity and emotive response within his playing that Smith brings to the fore with Be Still, an album steeped in varied emotional vignettes, all held together by the underpinnings of and contemplations on tranquility.
Be Still was conceived as an idea in an almost counter-cultural manner: when the majority of the world shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith found himself pondering the newfound stillness that seemed to abound as everyone’s plans were put on hold and the world went into a quasi-stasis. It was during this unexpected time of quietude that Smith began the concept that would become Be Still, carving out segments of time until, bit by bit, he had all the pieces that formed the artistic statement he has since taken into the studio. While each piece encapsulates different reflective elements, the album as a whole is tastefully built upon the foundation of musings on this state of societal standstill. In Smith’s words, “The album signifies tranquility… to relax, sit still, and be at peace.”
Musically, each piece on the album makes its own contemplative statement rooted within the overarching theme of tranquility. Evocative in nature, Be Still oscillates between the vibrant and the pensive as Smith paints music that allows a listener to react to and find something new in it upon each hearing. Beneath Smith’s tastefully variegated sonic display lies a bedrock of jazz lineage and gospel sensibilities, which steadfastly support both the emotional and musical direction of each piece and the album as a whole.
Smith’s compositional and performance approach is displayed poignantly on the track “I-5”. The title refers to Interstate 5, the predominant north-to-south highway that runs along the West Coast, following the shape of the Pacific coastline throughout. During his time on the road, Smith had the opportunity to tour along that highway and found the drive uniquely pleasant, allowing himself time to soak in the serenity of the world passing by. In a way, then, “I-5” stands as a musical meditation upon a preexisting meditation that was born of the moments when the road, sun, and horizon meet each other in just the right way. The album’s introspective themes continue with “Pico,” one of Smith’s original compositions written for Danny Thompson, the late baritone saxophonist of the Sun Ra Arkestra. “[Thompson] looked after me when I joined the band. He told my mom that he would watch me, and made sure I didn’t get in trouble,” Smith recalls fondly. “If I played something that sounded good, he would always turn around, look at me, and smile… Danny was a great man. He passed away a few years ago. I still miss him.” This album’s homage goes on with “The Trade,” a track that stands as an ode to a series of sessions Smith recorded with his peers. During those sessions, they would play endless hours of improvisation but with a catch: they would continually trade instruments. “Everyone else could manage a different instrument. Not me,” Smith laughs, “but I did my best.” Smith revisited the recordings from those old sessions and transcribed one of his favorite moments from them, turning it into what is now “The Trade”.
Smith’s vision for Be Still was not achieved alone, but was brought to life wondrously by his quintet. Comprising Brent White on trombone, Matthew Clayton on alto saxophone, Ian Macaulay on guitar, Madison Rast on bass, and Smith himself leading from the drum set, the band is lauded by their leader for their ability to approached the music with an “open mind” allowing them to “tell a story [on] every song.”
With Be Still, Smith has not only reestablished himself as a masterful creator of groove, but has asserted his prowess as a musician who understands the inner machinations of the human soul. A study in the earnest, the genuine, and the undeniably human, Be Still draws ruminatively from the heartstrings while still overflowing with that inescapable ability to make heads nod and feet tap.
Be Still releases on July 7th, 2023 on Blue Collar Records.